Southern European states have stepped up calls for solidarity in managing mass migration to the bloc saying the burden should be shared more fairly with other EU partners.
Highlighting the deep divisions on the issue, politicians in countries along Europe’s Mediterranean edge said a proposed migration pact failed to resolve the crisis equitably.
“In its current format, the pact does not provide sufficient guarantees to front-line member states,” the Interior and Migration ministers of Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta said in a joint statement after the meeting in Athens.
The project, which aims to review EU asylum and migration policies, was presented by the European Commission last fall.
Still under discussion, it envisages replacing what Brussels has recognized as ad-hoc solutions to one of Europe’s greatest challenges with a “predictable and reliable migration management system.”
But the new asylum policies have been harshly criticized by the countries most affected by migratory flows and the EU member states in the east.
While front-line nations argue that it does not go far enough to ensure a fair distribution of responsibility within the union, the Visegrád countries, led by Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, reject the plan to migration on the basis of requiring the bloc of 27 countries. accept asylum seeker quotas as part of a “mandatory solidarity mechanism”.
Addressing journalists at the Athens meeting, Italy’s Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said it was crucial that the Mediterranean countries form a “united front”.
“Six months after the official launch of the negotiations for a new European migration and asylum pact, and despite having presented different proposals on the common position of our countries, our basic concerns continue to exist,” he said. “The solidarity mechanisms remain unclear.”
Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission and chief coordinator of the pact, also said it was time to reconcile solidarity with geography. “We are here [because these] Five countries in the southern Mediterranean are forced, by geography, to carry a disproportionately large burden of refugees. [crisis] for all of Europe, ”he told reporters. “We have reached the point where we have to reconcile the geography of Europe with the solidarity of Europe … solidarity has to be seen in practice.”
Malta’s Minister of the Interior, National Security and Law Enforcement, Byron Camilleri, went further and said: “We can no longer be punished for our geographical position.”
Since the refugee crisis escalated with the outbreak of civil wars in Syria and Libya, countries with long coasts in southern Europe have borne the brunt of receiving and registering asylum seekers. With the help of smugglers, most cases make dangerous boat trips from the western shores of Turkey to Lesbos and other islands in the Aegean Sea or across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Cyprus has also seen a record number of arrivals with asylum seekers crossing the buffer zone that divides the island from the Turkish-controlled breakaway north. “Large numbers of migrants arrive daily … mainly through the green line, pushed through the occupied areas from Turkey,” said the island’s Greek Cypriot interior minister, Nicos Nouris, lamenting the fact that Ankara refused to recognize or collaborate with the country. “In the two-year period between 2019 and 2020 alone, there were 25,894 asylum applications.”
The five nations came together last year, forging an alliance known as “Med 5” in an attempt to press their case within the EU. The Athens meeting, the first since the group was formed, also called for a centrally managed European returns system and greater cooperation with countries of origin and transit.
Arrivals in Greece, until recently the center of the crisis, have steadily declined since the EU reached an agreement with Turkey to curb migration flows.
Last year, the numbers plummeted further after authorities rushed to reinforce their borders as a result of chaotic and often violent scenes at the Greek-Turkish land border after Ankara encouraged migrants to head to Europe. Fewer than 100,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2020 according to the UN.
But migration experts believe population movements will continue, exacerbated by the climate emergency and Covid-19.
Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, called for solidarity to be “mandatory.”
“The problems of front-line host countries are recognized by all member states,” he said. “But now this must be reflected in the new pact.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism